Book Six of The Age of Fire
The author of the national bestselling Vampire Earth series presents the fiery conclusion to his epic dragon saga.
Scattered across a continent, three dragon siblings are among the last of a dying breed-the final hope for their species' survival.
After fighting a war that cost each of them kingdoms, friends and family, and their honor and glory, they have removed themselves from the troubles of the world. But the order they fought to establish is falling apart. Ancient sorceries have been awakened. Dragons battle dragons. And men are taking up arms against their winged overlords. Now, the three must unite once more to save dragonkind from extinction, before the chaos and fire of war consumes them all...and the world with them.
Wistala, feeling like a newly mated dragondame, might have been living an idle, romantic dream, save that she was eyesore from searching mountainside crevices and frostbitten about the nostrils.
She rode chill mountain air, hunting trolls with her secret mate, DharSii, among the peaks of the SaddaVale. They’d been up before the sun, hoping to catch the walking boulder of muscle and appetite on its return from pasture country.
There were things she’d rather be doing with her mate, of course. Swimming in the steaming pools at the north end of the SaddaVale, for a start, rather than fighting winds that threatened to freeze her blood. The remote fastness of the SaddaVale, resting like a twisted skeleton on the vast plains east of the Red Mountains, had a pleasant microclimate in the snaketrack vale between two short mountain chains, a gift of the mild volcanic activity in the areaalong with an occasional earthquake.
Ancient ruins filled with highly stylized artwork, much of it featuring dragons, their prey, and cowering hominids, still waited to be uncovered and explored. There were secrets to be discovered in abandoned old tunnels and subchambers, icons to be discerned in high corners, relics of lost dragon history.
DharSii, a powerful yet thoughtful dragon whose scale color reminded her of the tigers she’d seen in jungles to the south, had some interesting theories about the old structures of the SaddaVale, and she wanted to hear them again, this time while looking at the art and iconography that had inspired such ideas. Wistala had developed her taste for pedantry while doing what her fellow librarians called “outwork,” living with a tribe of blighters half a world to the south. She’d seen hints here and there of an ancient golden age of dragons, and DharSii shared her interest in that epoch.
When conversation became too dull among their fellow dragons of the SaddaVale, they liked to escape mentally to other times and places. Those were her favorite hours, as they broke down the last few bones of dinner and swallowed afterfeast ores laboriously cracked out of the slatefields. Sometimes the conversations went on until the the dawn arrived like a surprise guest. They’d revive themselves by taking a swim in the steamy waters of the pools beneath Vesshall and then snooze on the sunny mountainside rocks above the lake mist.
But life with DharSii in the SaddaVale carried responsibilities. Left unchecked, the trolls would devour the flocks and herds and coops and pens that sustained the dragons and their blighter servants. So this particular morning they flew parallel to the western spine of mountains sheltering the vale, hungry and chilled and alert. The mountains, like old, worndown teeth, were full of crags, holes, and pockets, and trolls could fold themselves into cracks that would hardly allow a dragon’s snout. The peaks and ridges caught the wind and sang mournful tunes to unheeding clouds and fog. Above them, bitter winds blew hard and cold enough to freeze one’s eyes open in the winter. On the other side of the clouds, she knew, the stars at night were brilliantly clear, with spectacular fireworks of shimmering, flamecolored lights dancing on the horizon like maddened rainbowsif you could brave the chill. But in their shelter, the heated waters of the SaddaVale created pools of warmth and the omnipresent clouds and fogs.
DhaSii dipped lower, seeing something on the slope.
Just a shadow. He led her higher again, so their hunt might be concealed by the clouds.
Her brother AuRon should be with them. He was a skilled stalker. His scaleless skin, though vulnerable in battle and badly scarred because of it, shifted from color to color according to where he stood, even to the point of imitating shadows and striations in the rock face. But as soon as winter had broken above the SaddaVale and flight over the plains of the Ironriders became possible without fighting blizzards, he’d gone aloft to travel south, risking his life in order to visit his mate. Natasatch, mother of AuRon’s hatchlings now serving a new Tyr of the Dragon Empire, acted as “protector” for one of the Empire’s provinces. Which really meant humans fed, housed, and offered coin to AuRon’s mate.
AuRon, once when he had incautiously drunk too much of Scabia’s brandywine, had slurred something about “political necessities” separating him from his mate.
Wistala’s scaleless brother had to be careful on these visits and use every camouflage of wit and skin. As an exile, he was in danger of death every moment he was with his mate. To manage his brief visits, he made good use of his ability to become invisible at will and also of his many friends in the Protectorate of Dairuss, where he knew the king and queen from old.
But every time Wistala saw him leave, she feared that it would be a permanent parting.
She returned her wandering mind to the hunt.
The air this morning had a hopeful, alive smell. Fresh winds blew from the south, bringing the scents of the coming spring.
She noticed a herd of goats, tight together rather than grazing, the dominant males alert and watchful, all looking in the same direction and sniffing the breeze. Had they clustered at the sight of her and DharSii? It seemed unlikelygoats rarely searched the clouds unless a shadow passed over them, and there were thick, steely clouds today. Hardly a day went by that did not bring mists and drizzle, as warm, wet, rising air met the cooler streams above.
Good for the grasses the herbivores loved, but the patches of fog and wandering walls of drizzle also gave concealment for prowling trolls. You had to get lucky to see one in the open; at the sound of a dragon’s leathery wings, they could squeeze themselves into crevices that seemed hardly thicker than a tail tip.
No, the goats were alarmed by something else. Had they caught the scent of a troll? And, if so, would the pair of them be enough to kill it? They really should have brought another dragon so that there’d be a firebladder full of burning fats and sulfur in reserve.
Her other brother, the coppercolored RuGaard, formerly Tyr of the Dragon Empire and Worlds Upper and Lower, wouldn’t be of much use on a hunt. Thin and listless, hardly eating, drinking, or caring for his scales, he lived a lightless existence at Scabia’s hall, hearing without really listening to her old tales of the great dragon civilization of Silverhigh from ages ago. The only time he showed any sort of animation these days was when AuRon brought news of his own mate, Nilrasha, a virtual prisoner in a tower of rock, thanks to the stumps she had instead of wings and a guard of watchful griffaran. She lived on as a hostage to the former Tyr’s good behavior.
Or when Scabia told some old tale of desperate vengeance. Scabia loved fiery tales where three generations of men were born and dead before a dragon took his bloodtoll upon a hominid nation. Then he grew attentive and his griff twitched as he stared at Scabia through lidded eyes.
RuGaard frightened her at such times. She could feel the violence in his thoughts like the muffled pounding of distant hooves.
Thank the spirits she had the comforting presence of DharSii beside her. Caught between the quiet, reserved AuRon, creepy in his ability to disappear into the scenery and his own thoughts, and RuGaard’s gloomy brooding, she needed a companion to provide mental, and a bit of exhilarating physical, escape.
There were flowers just above the ground in green meadows at the colder altitudes below the tree line. Spring had come at last.
Spring. Her hatchlings would be aboveground this spring and breathing their first fire.
Waitnot her hatchlings. They counted Aethleethia as their mother, even if they could barely comprehend a mindpicture from the lazy ninny.
The offering of her hatchlings had been Scabia’s price for giving the exiles from the Dragon Empire refuge at Vesshall in the SaddaVale. Scabia’s daughter, Aethleethia, was unable to have eggs of her own, and both were eager for hatchlings in their hall. The other dragons thought the father of the hatchlings was Aethleethia’s mate, NaStirath, a foolish but handsomely formed dragon of proud lineage.
She, DharSii, and NaStirath had conspired to hide the truth that DharSii was the true sire. Though one of the males did bear stripes as dark as DharSii’s, the suspicious Scabia had been placated when Wistala pointed out that her brother AuRon was also a striped dragon.
No matter who they counted as mother, the three males and two females would be ravenous, and if they were to have anything besides the bony fish or carapacecreatures and snails of the lake to eat, she and DharSii would have to find and kill the trolls that had been raiding sheep, goats, and caribou from the mountain slopes and patches of forest in the valleys.
DharSii and Wistala had discovered the remains of trolleaten game on one of their flights to get some privacy from the other dragons of the SaddaVale. A troll could easily eat as much as a dragon and according to DharSii, if the food supply was truly superlative, it would breed.
Scabia’s blighter servants had been frantically breeding cattle, sheep, and goats and releasing them into pasture ever since Wistala and her exiled companions arrived. There was ample game for a whole family of trolls, though the solitary trolls didn’t form anything that might be recognized as family.
So now they were on the hunt for the most dangerous vermin in the world.
Wistala liked a hunt. She liked it doubly well with a dragon she loved and admired. She’d long since learned she could admire something without loving it or love someone without admiring him; the combination of love and admiration went to her head like wine. DharSii“QuickClaw” in the dragonvernacularwhen on the hunt spoke and acted quickly and efficiently, with none of the stupid roaring and stomping that a typical male dragonNaStirath, sayindulged in upon spotting the prey.
“Troll tracks,” DharSii said, waggling his wings.
She followed him down to a felled tree on a steep slope. She had to dig her claws into the earth deep to keep from sliding.
A long, muddy skid mark stood on the lower side of the fallen tree, the mosses and mushrooms devouring it were smashed and smeared where the troll had placed a foot, and it had slipped on the soggy mud beneath, sliding a short way on the slope. They could see broken branches on another tree a short distance downslope where it had arrested its slide.
“Scat, too,” she said. She followed the bad air to a mound of troll droppings, though the less said about it the better for all concerned. For all their strength of torso and limb, trolls had rather haphazard digestive systems, sometimes expelling food that was barely absorbed. This particular mass of skin, bones, and hair was disgustingly fresh and hardly touched by insects yet, though a beetle or two crawled about on the waste, waving antennae as though celebrating their good fortune.
“Looks like it’s making northeast, toward our herds,” DharSii said, counting the widely spaced tracks heading down the slope. “This is fresh enough that I’ll hazard it’s still climbing that ridge.”
Almost a long mountain in itself, the ridge DharSii spoke of was cut by deep ledges, like colossal steps running at an angle down toward the central lake of the SaddaVale, where its bulk forced one of the lake’s many bends. On the other side of the ridge were herds of winterthinned cattle, hungrily exploring meadows springing up in the path of snow retreating to higher altitudes, along with the usual sheep and goats.
“I’ll try to follow the tracks, stalking or flying low,” DharSii said. “You get up into the cloud cover, so you can just see the surface. If it knows it’s being followed, it will make a dash for shelter, and we may be able to corner it. I know that ridge well; there aren’t many caves, but there are fissures it will use.”
If DharSii had a fault, it was arrogance. If there was a risk to be run, he assumed he would be the better at facing it. Gallant, but vexing for a dragondame who enjoyed a challenging hunt.
“Why shouldn’t I follow the trail? Green scale will give me an advantage in low flight, if the troll’s climbed the ridge already and looking behind and below.”
“I know this troll. This track is familiar. Longfingers, I call him. I’ve tried for him several times, and he’s tried for me almost as many. I know his tricks, you don’t, and he’s nearly had me even so. One of us must put an end to the other sooner or later. He’ll be expecting me to be hunting alone, and he may take a risk that will draw him into the open. Then you may strike.”
“As you wish, you old tiger,” Wistala said.
“I’m scarcely above two hundred. Hardly old,” DharSii said. “Mature and distinguished.”
“Just don’t distinguish yourself any further with more scars,” Wistala said. “Scabia’s blighters sew skin closed like drunken spiders, and we’ve no gold or silver coin to replace lost scale. I’ll be above.”
“Hahem. I’ll return hearts and scale to you intact,” DharSii said.
Wistala snorted and opened her wings. She flapped hard to gain altitude and the concealment of the cloud cover.
She flew out over the choppy water of the lake, then circled around to the other side of the ridge. After hearing that this troll and DharSii were old enemies, she would feel terrible if she got lucky and spotted Longfingers out in the open and vulnerable to a dive. But given the chance, she would end the hunt quickly. DharSii was prickly about his honor, but he’d understand. Trolls were too wily to let one live when you had an opportunity for a kill.
She hung in the sky, drifting, surveying the terrain below, feeling as though she’d been in this air before, hunting. Once upon a dream, perhaps. Or some old memory handed down from her parents and their parents.
She scanned the ridge, and the more gentle lands beneath, green hills rolling like waves coming up against a seaside cliff. More goats. Some sheep feeding on the north side. Perhaps if the hunt was successful they could celebrate with fresh mutton.
A few more beats to put herself back in the mists. Wisps of moisture interfered with her vision, but still, she couldn’t see DharSii. For a deep orange dragon marked by black stripes, he could be difficult to see when he chose to move in forested shadow. Was he on foot or on wing?
Wing would be safer, but easier to see from a distance, and Longfingers might hide. On foot DharSii had a better chance of following the trail, so he might spot the troll before it saw himif that cluster of sensory organs that trolls dangled about had eyes as she knew them, that is
DharSii would probably be on foot, accepting the contest of wits with a troll.
She headed south, in the approximate direction of the troll’s track. It knew the ground as well as DharSii did, and was crossing the ridge in a jumble of boulders and flats that offered concealmentand a possible easy meal of bird or goat.
Still no sign of DharSii, or the troll. She doubted it had made the meadows; the sheep and goats there showed no sign of being alarmed or disturbed.
She sought and searched shadows, crevices, high bare trails, and thorny hillside tangles. Her mate and the troll had disappeared.
To the winds with the plan!
She narrowed her wings and descended toward the jagged shadows of the ridge.
Wistala flew, more anxious with each wingbeat. She should have met DharSii by now. Visions of her mate lying broken and halfdevoured by the troll set her imagination running wild to years of loneliness without him. No chance at more hatchlings to raise as their own, no more long conversations, no more uncomfortable throatclearings when she scored a point . . .
Dust gave them away. Dust and a noise like glacier ice cracking.
She followed the telltale feathers of kickedup dust to a boulderlittered hummock in the ridge. Here the ridge broke into windcut columns of rock like ships’ sails, with brush growing wherever soil could find purchase out of the wind.
The dust flung into the air came from DharSii’s wings, beating frantically at a monstrous figure riding his back. His whipping tail struck limestone as he turned, sending more flakes and dust into the air.
The troll squatted astride DharSii, intent on his destruction. Its great armlegs gripped DharSii’s crest at the horns, pulling him in evertightening circles.
She felt her hearts skip a beat in shock.
DharSiioh, his neck is sure to be broken! The troll is too strong!
Her firebladder pulsed, eager to empty its contents.
Trolls were put together as though by some act of madness by the spirits, to Wistala’s mind. Their skin was purplish and veined, like the inner side of a freshcut rabbitskin. Their great arms functioned as legs, while tiny legs hung from the triangular torso more to steady the body and to convey items to the orifice that served as both mouth and vent. Great plates covered lungs on the outside, working like bellows to force air across the back, and the joints bent in odd and disturbing directions. Worst of all, they had no face to speak of, just a soggy mass of sense organs on a gruesome orb alternately extended and retracted from the torso like a shy snake darting in and out of a hole.
This troll used its thick, powerful legarms grasping the horns of DharSii’s crest to wrench her mate’s head back and down. Wistala braced herself for the inevitable terrible snap that must come.
Wistala had killed a troll once before by breathing fire onto its delicate lung tissue. But dragonflame, a special sulfurous fat collected and strained in the firebladder and then ignited when vomited by a saliva spat from the roof of the mouth, could hurt DharSii just as much as the troll. Dragonscale offered some protection, but DharSii’s leathery wing tissue could be burned, or he could inhale the fire, or it might pool and run under his scale.
If she couldn’t use her fire, she could still fight with her weight.
She folded her wings and turned into a tight dive, not as neatly as a falcon but with infinitely more power.
This “Longfingers” was perhaps as experienced against dragons as she was against trolls. It had DharSii by a dragon’s weakest point, its long neck.
She swooped around jagged prominences, risking skin of neck, tail, and wing. Heedless of the danger to her winga hard enough strike might leave her forever broken and unable to reach the sky againshe flew to DharSii’s rescue. This was no longer a simple hunt to exterminate vermin but a deathstruggle between dragon and monster.
Pick it updrop it from a height. Stomp and smash! Warring instincts raged.
Teeth would be next to useless on a creature of that size. Her neck just didn’t have the power to do much more than score its hide. Better to strike with her tail, or there might be two dragons with broken necks. She altered her dive as though trying to reverse directions, so that the force of her swinging tail might send the troll flying right out of the SaddaVale.
The troll, showing the uncanny sense of its kind, threw itself sideways just as she struck, rolling DharSii along with its bulk.
“I’m here, my love!” Wistala called.
Wistala missed the troll, lashed DharSii with her tail. It struck, a whipcrack against horseflesh but a thousand times louder. She saw scale fly and scatter like startled birds.
Wistala roared, half in rage, half in despair.
The troll, in avoiding Wistala’s blow, put itself in a position so DharSii could anchor his head by hooking horn on rock. The great blackstriped dragon twisted his body and struck with his saa.
This time, instead of dust being kicked into the air, droplets of dark liquid flew. DharSii’s claws came away sticky.
Vaaaaaaa! DharSii roared as the wounded troll pulled him around in a circle as though trying to yank his head off by pure effort.
DharSii suddenly lunged into the troll’s pull, digging his horns into the fleshy torso. Now it was the dragon’s turn to plant his feet and pull.
The troll used its mighty limbs to push itself off the dragon’s crest, tearing skin and ripping open its own veins. DharSii’s horns and snout looked as though they’d been dipped in ink.
Wistala banked and by the time she swung around, the troll was covering ground in an uneven run, leaving a trail of blueblack blood.
She vomited fire and the troll pulled itself in a new direction with one of its armlegs. As she passed overhead, claws out and wings high and out of reach, the troll lashed up. Tail and legarm struck with a sound like tree limbs breaking.
An orange flash, and this time DharSii was atop the troll. He severed the senseorgan stalk with a sweep of his sii and the troll tumbled, righted itself, and ran blindly into a limestone cut.
The troll bounced back and fell, a buzzing beetlewing noise coming from its lungplates as the bellows forced air across the vulnerable flesh.
Still, the troll fought, lashing out with legarms and armlegs, but blinded and deafened against two dragons the contest was hopeless.
She and DharSii stood far enough apart that they just might touch wingtips, making a perfectly equal triangle with the wildly swinging troll. They raised their heads in unison, lowered their fanlike griff to protect delicate tissue of ear and neckhearts, and spat, eyes as slits with watermembranes down and nostrils tightly clenched.
The thin streams of oilysmelling flame made a hot, low roar of their own as they met at the troll, painting it in bright hues of blue, red, orange, and yellow. Black smoke added a delicate spiderweb framing to the inferno of sizzling flesh and sputtering flame.
They had the troll engulfed in fire before it could pick itself up from the stony slope. It still writhed about horribly as the heat consumed muscle.
Bigfooted rabbits fled in panic from the heat, which set puddles of water asizzle and cracked rock. Birds shot out of the patches of yellowandwhiteflowered meadow about the mountainside.
The dragons ignored them, leaning against each other and crossing necks as they caught their breath. The spreading dark smoke seemed to stain the ironcolored clouds above like blood dark against a sword’s edge.
The stench of burning troll was as bad as Wistala remembered. Unpleasant business, but it had to be done if the SaddaVale’s hatchlings, and dragons, were to eat the herds they and their blighter servants tended.
“You arrived just in time, my gem,” DharSii said. “Longfingers had one more trick behind his ears for me.”
“Next time, let me follow the trolltracks while you watch from the skies.”
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